How to use the rule of thirds in art

The rule of thirds is a great way to approach your composition, whatever your subject matter. Here's how to use it effectively.

Rule of thirds - Rubens

In this painting by Rubens, the main points of interest are placed at each intersection

Whether you're just learning how to draw or a pro composing a new piece, there are some basic drawing and painting techniques and guidelines, like the Golden Ratio, which, if you stick to, you won't go far wrong. The rule of thirds states that if you divide any composition into thirds, vertically and horizontally, then place the key elements of your image either along these lines or at the junctions of them, you’ll achieve a more pleasing arrangement and more interesting and dynamic compositions.

Painters and artists use the rule of thirds mostly for landscapes, but it also works for any subject matter including still-lifes, figures and even portraits.

The rule of thirds gives you a guide for placing focal points. If you design your focal points according to the intersections of any of the nine rectangles, your picture will have the counterbalance needed to make the composition more interesting and more compelling.

You can also design other elements in the picture to lead the eye from one of the focal points to the other, and use the corners to bring the viewer into the picture or keep the eyes moving back into picture again. This kind of eyeflow adds movement and life to any composition.

By following the guidelines and intersections created by the rule of thirds, you can more easily create compositions that are asymmetric and much more dynamic.

01. Origins

Rule of thirds - Origins

The rule of thirds dates back to classical and Renaissance paintings

The rule of thirds is a compositional guideline. Its origins go back to classical and Renaissance paintings, but it is mostly known as a compositional tool used by photographers. This painting by Valentin de Boulogne shows how the main characters are all placed on the upper dividing line, creating a dynamic arrangement of figures.

02. Use for landscapes

Rule of thirds - Use for landscapes

Here the rule of thirds neatly dictates the layout of this landscape

The rule of thirds is mostly known as a tool for composing landscapes. In this painting by Pierre Henri de Valenciennes, the horizon is placed in the lower thirds, and the large mass of mountains and scenery is placed in the left section, to create a more dynamic scene.

03. Asymmetric compositions

Rule of thirds - Asymmetric compositions

Use the rule of thirds to create asymmetry without chaos

The main function of the rule of thirds is to help create asymmetric compositions. If the elements in a picture are centred and too balanced, it becomes boring. If the images are offset using the rule of thirds, the asymmetry and counterbalance of elements creates a much more dynamic picture.

04. Focal points

Rule of thirds - Focal points

Place focal points and other points of interest at intersections

Another great way to use rule of thirds is to help place focal points. In this portrait painting, the eyes fall on the upper horizontal line and leads to the second focal point in the ear. Other points of interest such as the warm triangle of light also fall on an intersection of guidelines.

05. Eyeflow

Rule of thirds - Eyeflow

Smart positioning of focal points guides the eye around your artwork

Eyeflow is another great use of the rule of thirds. In this painting by Rubens, the main focal point of the boar is placed at an intersection. Secondary points of interest fall on intersections as well and the action of the poses lead the eye from one focal point or intersection to another.

06. Still-life

Rule of thirds - Still-life

Use the rule of thirds to guide still-life composition

The first demonstration is a still-life. I begin by arranging my objects so that the composition lines up with the guidelines and intersections created by the rule of thirds. The banana and shadow follow the bottom guideline while the highlight on the mango falls on the upper-right intersection, creating a dynamic focal point.

07. Intersecting guides

Rule of thirds - Intersecting guides

Use intersections as drawing guides and also to inform your lighting

The next step is to create the drawing using the intersections as guides. I also create a value thumbnail so that I can plan my dark value composition. Here, the lower and left thirds are dominated by darks while the bright highlight in the upper section creates a dynamic focal point.

08. Blocking in

Rule of thirds - Blocking in

Block in dark shadows, adjusting to follow the guidelines

I begin the painting by blocking in the dark shadows. I also add more saturated colours into the shadows and transition tones. To make the composition more dynamic and asymmetric, I purposely straighten the drawing of the banana’s shadow. This gives it a stronger horizontal alignment with the bottom guideline.

09. Add colour

Rule of thirds - Add colour

Add colour, again following the layout of the grid

Next, I add the half-tone shapes and more colour. Here the upper third is entirely a dark mid-tone that will help to frame the highlight focal point. I also straighten the curve of the table surface so that it lines up with the upper guideline and creates a more asymmetric value composition.

10. Final touches

Rule of thirds - Final touches

Use thicker and brighter paint at the highlight point

To complete the painting, light tones, highlights and finishing touches are added. The light on the table surface fills out the lower 2/3rds of the composition. Thicker and brighter paint and technique variation are added at the highlight, which really draws the eye to the main focal point.

11. Urban landscape

Rule of thirds - Urban landscape

You can use the rule of thirds in portrait orientation

The next demonstration is a urban landscape. I slightly “break” the rule of thirds by using it in a vertical or portrait orientation. The reference image here shows that I will have to align the central structure with the right vertical guideline to give me more asymmetry and counterbalance in this composition.

12. Drawing and design

Rule of thirds - Drawing and design

Sketch out the painting, moving things around to fit to guidelines

I begin the painting with the drawing and design. In my drawing, I move the centre object to the right so that it lines up with the right vertical guideline. I also design the other elements in the bottom of the composition to line up with the lower guideline.

13. Lock in major elements

Rule of thirds - Lock in major elements

Block in the major elements of the composition

Next, I block in the darks and add colour in the shadows. This step helps me to lock in the major elements of the composition such as the central focal point and the dark lower thirds section. This creates an interesting tension with the upper 2/3rds of light.

14. Half-tones and lights

Rule of thirds - Half-tones and lights

Add half-tones and lights to contrast with the darks

Next, I add half-tones and lights. This locks in the major elements of the design and composition. The tower focal point lines up nicely with the right guideline and the darks with the lower guideline. The colours in the sky also add colour and value contrast with the darks in the lower third of the picture.

15. Final details

Rule of thirds - Final details

Adding final details creates more depth and movement

To complete the painting, I add details in the dark foreground along with more colour and technique variation. This also creates more depth and movement. I also clean up the shapes in the central tower structure and use the upper guideline to help me place the small details and horizontal beam shapes.

16. Sub-divisions

Rule of thirds - Sub-divisions

Using sub-divisions enables you to intelligently place smaller details

This image shows how the rule of thirds is sub-divided in this painting. The top of the tower lines up with a guideline. The central elements line up nicely with a guideline. And many of the lower details, colours and small strokes line up with guidelines in the lower section.

17. Figure painting

Rule of thirds - Figure painting

Here the rule of thirds helps create a dynamic figure painting

This next example is a figure painting in watercolour. I begin the drawing and shadow block-in by using the upper guideline to line up the main action of the pose. This sets up a dynamic, asymmetric composition. I also line up the face with the right-vertical guideline to create a secondary focal point.

18. Asymmetric counterbalance

Rule of thirds - Asymmetric counterbalance

Use light and dark tones to create asymmetric counterbalance

Next, I block in the dark and light half-tones. I also add as much colour as possible and begin to soften the core shadow edges. Having the dark shadows and half-tones dominate the right thirds of the composition creates an asymmetric arrangement of value. This helps to counterbalance the main focal point.

19. Add highlights

Rule of thirds - Add highlights

Counterbalance the highlights wth vivid red along the right-vertical

Next, I add the highlights. Since the highlights fall on the upper guideline, it helps reinforce the composition. I also add highlights on the main focal point. To counterbalance the image, I also add intense red colour along the right-vertical guideline. Now I have a simple and dynamic arrangement of values and colour.

20. Final touches

Rule of thirds - Final touches

Additional colour provides a secondary focal point and dynamic eye-flow

To complete the painting, I add more colour to the focal point hand. I also add variation in technique to really draw the eye to the punching hand. For counterbalance, I add saturated reds to the eyes in shadow. This gives the image a secondary focal point and a dynamic eye-flow to the composition.

Words: Chris Legaspi

Digital images courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. This article originally appeared in the How to paint and draw bookazine from ImagineFX.

Liked this? Read these!